ETS Using Test Results To Justify Its Test-Filled Vision

March 4, 2015

America's Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (cover), February 17, 2015. (ETS).

America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future (cover), February 17, 2015. (ETS).

I actually like the Educational Testing Service (ETS). I’ve done work for them as a consultant and as an AP Reader over the years. I enjoyed most of my testing experiences with them, especially the AP US History Exam of 1986. I like many of the conferences that they host and sponsor, and they beat almost all with the spreads of food that they provide at their events. Yet even with all that, ETS’ agenda is one of promoting the ideal of a meritocratic society with a repressive regime of testing that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt the socioeconomic determinism of standardized assessments. Or, in plain English, tests that favor the life advantages of the middle class and affluent over the poor, Whites and assimilated East Asians over Blacks, Latinos, and only partially assimilated immigrants of color.

Such is the case with a nearly unreported new report from ETS. They had scheduled a press release for the “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future” on Tuesday, February 17th at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The organizers postponed the event, though, because of the phantom snow storm that was really a typical snow shower. So I didn’t get to ask my preliminary questions about the findings of researchers Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, that despite the educational gains of the generation born after 1980, they sorely lack the skills they need for life and work in the twenty-first century. My questions? How could anyone have expected millennials to develop independent thinking, critical thinking, innovative thinking, writing and other analytical skills if they spend precious little time in their education actually doing any of these things? How would the constant barrage of high-stakes tests from kindergarten to twelfth grade have been able to instill in students ways to think outside the box, to look at issues with more than one perspective, to stand in opposition to policies based on evidence, and not just based on their gut or something they picked up from a test?

Mass of students taking high-stakes test, September 4, 2014. ( via Shutterstock).

Mass of students taking high-stakes test, September 4, 2014. ( via Shutterstock).

Well, the report is worse than I thought. Goodman, Sands and Coley put together an argument that makes circular reasoning look like a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. The authors produced this first in a series of reports for ETS, relying solely on “data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).” The PIAAC, developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is a survey that assesses the skill levels of a broad spectrum of people between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five, the primary working population in most developed countries (meaning the US and Canada, the EU, the Baltic states, Australia, Japan and South Korea). ETS and the authors claim that this survey instrument is better at assessing how far behind millennials in particular are when compared to “their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)” than the international testing of high school students alone. And as such, the authors concluded that

PIAAC results for the United States depict a nation burdened by contradictions. While the U.S. is the wealthiest nation among the OECD countries, it is also among the most economically unequal. A nation that spends more per student on primary through tertiary education than any other OECD nation systematically scores low on domestic and international assessments of skills. A nation ostensibly based on the principles of meritocracy ranks among the highest in terms of the link between social background and skill level. And a nation with some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world houses a college-educated population that scores among the lowest of the participating OECD nations in literacy and numeracy.

I don’t about anyone who reads my blog, but I find these conclusions smack of so much hypocrisy that they’re stomach-ache-inducing. Really? Years of promoting testing at every level of K-12 education, everything from state and district-level assessments to PARCC and Smarter Balanced Assessments, and it’s only because of growing economic inequality that US students-turned-adults don’t score well in the super-advanced, highly skilled categories? Not to mention, the SAT, AP exams, GREs, LSATs, GMATs, MCATs, Praxis I, Praxis II, and so many other ETS exams that it would cause the average psychometrician’s head to explode? Seriously?

Terrier dog chasing its own tail, March 3, 2015. (

Terrier dog chasing its own tail, March 3, 2015. (

This is yet another case of the dog chasing its own tail. A case where the $3-billion-per-year nonprofit just outside Princeton, New Jersey is sounding a clarion call for a crisis that it helped create. Not the one on the rapid rise of inequality, though its promoting of a false meritocracy through constant testing has served to lull affluent America into an intellectual coma. But in the cutting of history and social studies, literature and art, theater and music classes, from kindergarten really all the way through a bachelor’s degree program.

In the promotion of testing as the way to address achievement gaps, to deal with the so-called education crisis, so much of what was good about K-12 and even higher education has fallen away. Reading for the sake of reading and learning has drifted away, with more English and less literature in schools and at many colleges and universities than ever. Want to teach someone how to express themselves in writing, to express their numeracy in proofs? That thinking runs counter to what goes on in the Common Core school systems of 2015, meaning most people will either never develop these skills, or, if lucky, might develop them somewhere between their junior year of college and in finishing a master’s degree or doctorate. We emphasize STEM fields with billions of STEM dollars without realizing that great STEM is much more than equations and formulas. It’s also imagination, applying the ability to break down pictures, ideas, words and sentences contextually to the world of numbers and algorithms.

And don’t give me this whole “the SAT now has an essay section on it” spiel! Fact is, everyone knows that expressing their words on paper, on a screen or in speech is critical in modern societies. After almost seven decades of testing, ETS figured this out, too? What they haven’t figure out yet, though, is how to make standardized high-stakes testing a necessary for the entire working adult population in the US. Believe me, that’s where they want to head next.

Malcolm X, “Make It Plain”

February 21, 2015

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (

Plain Conscious Chocolate, February 21, 2015. (

I’d be a terrible historian to not comment on the fact that today marks fifty years since some Nation of Islam malcontents — with support from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — murdered Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom (now the Shabazz Center) in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. I wasn’t around for the event, or any of the tumultuous events that defined “The ’60s.” All I know was I didn’t learn about Malcolm Little or Malcolm X until the summer between my undergraduate and graduate years at Pitt, the summer of ’91. Although the year before, I’d gone to a Malcolm X birthday celebration at the Homewood-Brushton branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. There, I saw poets performing their work, got to listen to some good jazz and rap, and saw the Afrocentric set out in full force.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center, with the Columbia University Medical Center's Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building in the background), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered (now the Shabazz Center), Washington Heights, New York, June 4, 2014. (Beyond My Ken via Wikipedia). Release to the public domain via GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

You’d think after three years as a Hebrew-Israelite and years around children of Nation of Islam members as a kid that I would’ve heard all about Malcolm. Nope, hardly a peep about him growing up in Mount Vernon. Mostly, I got questions like, “Yo, you a “five percenter”?,” which for me translated into the chosen few living in the midst of the end times. Other than that, there was always the dichotomy trope of Martin versus Malcolm laid on us real thick through school and the newspapers. Dr. King was respectable, nonviolent, a true representative of the race. Malcolm was a street thug, a leading member of a heathen religion, a violent man who hated White people.

My Mom, who normally rejected mainstream White ways of thinking about Black folks, had bought this trope and tried to sell it to me and my older brother growing up. But as with so many things my Mom attempted to instill in me growing up, I wouldn’t make any decisions about Malcolm the person (as opposed to the icon) until I got around to reading, in this case about him and the Nation of Islam, as an adult.

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (

The Five Percenter logo (apparently popular among the rapper set), January 8, 2013. (

The one thing I realized after reading the Afrocentric, mainstream and Alex Haley interpretations of Malcolm in the early ’90s is that just like with King, we could make Malcolm X represent whatever we wanted. He could be nonviolent and a militant at the same time, or a thug and an ambassador of peace at the same time. Yes, as the late Manning Marable’s book shows, Malcolm — like most of us — was a walking, breathing contradiction of convictions (literal and figurative) and beliefs. For the purposes of my post today, though, he was a social justice activist, acting on the part of those poor, Black and discarded, plain and simple.

Which is why I think anyone who thinks Malcolm X brought murder to his own pulpit in February 1965 is an idiot. The idea that teaching others self-defense in opposition to White mobs, lynching, and blatant police brutality deserved a violent death. Really, now? So, if that’s the case, then Dr. King should have died of natural causes about three or four years ago, since his was the path of nonviolence, right? Yet, you still hear the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo de Stupido slinging this shit (and similar crap playing on such respectability politics themes) as if it were McDonald’s hash browns on sale for half-price.

Manning Marable's Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia).  Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: Life of Reinvention (2011) cover (Marable died four days before his last book dropped), May 28, 2012. (Malik Shabazz via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws (relevant subject matter, low resolution).

Speaking of that lot, I don’t wonder what Malcolm X would say about our racist, plutocratic democracy these days. Anyone whose read his words would know what he’d say. That what happened with Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Rashida McBride and so many others should be resisted “by any means necessary.” That we should unmask those powerful people lurking in the shadows but pulling the strings that keep the systems of oppression working 24/7 in our world. He would’ve supported Occupy Wall Street when and where few Black leaders had in 2010 and 2011, called Islamic State or IS (that’s what they are called outside the US, where we can’t get our acronyms straight) a “chickens coming home to roost” scenario, and put Tavis Smiley and Cornel West in the same self-aggrandizing bag as Giuliani and Rivera.

I get why it took Malcolm Little so long to transform himself into Malcolm X, and still, until after his thirty-ninth birthday, for him to find himself and his purpose in the world. It’s taken me nearly four and half decades to do the same. It’s hard to “make it plain,” especially to ourselves. It’s scary to be in a constant state of disillusionment, about family and friends, about your identity, about your religion and beliefs. But it also allows you to see yourself and everyone around you fresh for the first time, to know who people really are.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and My Own Prison

February 16, 2015

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

East Library branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, before (the version I worked in) and after renovation, October 4, 2006 and September 25, 2011. ( and

On February 17th seventeen years ago, we opened one of the first community-based computer labs in the US at the East Liberty branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. What was once known as the Microsoft Library Fund (which later became the Gates Library Foundation, and then became part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) had provided the initial $110,000 to place this computer lab in one of the East Library branches resource rooms. I guess it could’ve been a proud moment for me. If I hadn’t earned my PhD the year before, only to face unemployment for three months during the summer of ’97 and underemployment in the five months since taking the Carnegie Library job. But this was a humiliating moment, not one of pride or, at least, taking comfort in a job done well. It was a learning moment at a time when I thought I already knew what I need to move forward with my career and life.

The dissertation process, my battles with Joe Trotter, the truth about my relationship with my Mom, had all taken a heavy toll on my heart and mind by the time Memorial Day ’97 rolled around. So much so that I lived between moments of humility (which is different from humiliation) and moments of rage in the sixteen months between May ’97 and the fall of ’98. I was living on fumes from my last Carnegie Mellon paycheck when I began working for Carnegie Library the day after Labor Day that year. I’d been conditioned, though, to think that everything happens for a reason. So I assumed that God was attempting to teach me a lesson, that I needed to give more out of the needs I had in my life in order for the things I thought I deserved to come my way.

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

John Wooden saying on being humble, February 16, 2015. (

There was a bit of a flaw in my logic around God’s lessons. For one, the idea that I wasn’t finding work in academia because I hadn’t been a giver was ridiculous. Between volunteering for soup kitchens, tutoring high school students, tithing at church, and so many other things, it was dumb to think that not enough humility was the reason I didn’t get the job at Teachers College or had trouble finding adjunct work in the fall of ’97. Or rather, it was dumb not to think that bigger issues — like my dissertation committee abandoning me when I needed them the most — played a greater role in my not finding full-time work in my chosen profession than any inability to serve others.

The Carnegie Library job provided a part-time stop-gap for my income while I attempted to figure out how to move forward without my advisor and my committee and move on with the knowledge that my relationship with my Mom would never be the same. I figured that the job gave me the opportunity to help others and to do good, and that it was a good first foray into the nonprofit world, especially with money from the world of Microsoft.

Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong! I had a co-worker who was jealous of my degree and attempted to undermine the work of putting together the lab and the class materials for teaching patrons how to use the computers at every turn. I figured out that the bosses at the central branch in Oakland had essentially pocketed some of the funding for the lab to cover the costs of new computers for their own personal use, and had underfunded both my position and my co-worker’s position as part of the grant.

Album cover for Creed's My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

Album cover for Creed’s My Own Prison (includes title track), released August 26, 1997. (Jasper the Friendly Punk via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws to illustrate title and theme of this blog post.

But I didn’t learn all of this until June. By February ’98, I began to realize that, more than anything else, I needed to free myself from my own prison of an idea, that I’d done anything wrong or sinful to end up running a computer lab project at twenty-eight when I had done much of this same work at nineteen years old. I had to begin to find prominent people in my field(s) to support me in finding work, even if none of them were on my dissertation committee. I still needed to apply for academic jobs, even if my status meant than some would reject me because of my issues with my advisor. I even needed to explore the idea of jobs outside academia, in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, where my degrees and my ideas about education policy and equity might still matter.

It definitely helped when Duquesne hired me in April to teach graduate-level education foundations courses in History of American Education and Multicultural Education. It helped even more, though, when I decided in August to quit the Carnegie Library job. Between the Microsoft folks and the sycophants at Carnegie Library who were willing to do almost anything for a few extra dollars — anything other than serve their neighborhoods, that is — I’d had enough of duplicitous people. Who knew that my first job with sycophants and Gates money would come back to haunt me in the seventeen years since!

Fifty Shades of White People’s Imaginations

February 15, 2015

"Take a bow, James" screen shot from Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey, Jr., September 29, 2009. (

“Take a bow, James!” screen shot from Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, and Robert Downey, Jr., September 29, 2009. (

So far this Valentine’s Day/Presidents Day weekend, Fifty Shades of Grey is making a killing at the box office, over $30 million on its official release on Friday alone. A movie with an estimated twenty-minutes’ worth of sex scenes, coming on the heels of the most successful self-published book in history? Take a bow, E.L. James, take a bow!

Oops, I didn’t mean to go there, Ms. James! Submitting to a bow would likely conform too much to one of the big themes of your book and movie. The idea that a college-educated millennium would play the role of submissive to a business magnate and engage in an unworkable romance, is, well, a theme straight out of Hollywood producer’s ass. Or, rather, a Hollywood porn producer’s average shoot!

Really, between the book, the movie and the reviews, it seems that Fifty Shades of Grey is really about affluent White folks all over the world attempting to be comfortable with what some would call “taboo sex” in the early twenty-first century. It’s like a whole generation of British Commonwealth and American Whites haven’t taken the time to see 9½ Weeks (1985) or Body Heat (1981), or at least, like to pretend that everything that is new is actually new when it’s not. At best, the book is like eating too much cotton candy at an amusement park while drink a fifth of vodka, getting on a roller coaster, and then vomiting on your five year-old (luckily, I didn’t spend money to read it). But really, Fifty Shades of Grey is a symbol of Whiteness played out in power fantasies, hardly sexual at all.

Most Americans (and many affluent Brits and Aussies as well) celebrate books and movies that aggrandize their ability to experience orgasms and overpower each other in relationships. It’s a reflection of a world without consequences, because everyone in James’ world is already on top, and need not fear falling into the real world. Where love, sex, struggle and self-discovery are about much more that belts and chains.

Vicarious Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2015

Fringe Observer 'September,' played by Michael Cerveris, circa 2013. (John Milton via

Fringe Observer ‘September,’ played by Michael Cerveris, circa 2013. (John Milton via

A couple of alternate titles could be “A Little Ditty About ‘Jack and Diane’,” or “The Legend of Crush #1 and The Contrarian One.” Really, though, I’ve never given much thought to Valentine’s Day, even in dating and marriage, mostly because until I turned twenty-five, I never had money to waste on such an aimless, unbelievably overhyped and commercialized “holiday.”

Few understand that the Catholic holy day of St. Valentine was about a Christian martyred in the midst of a period of Roman persecution under the emperor Aurelian, outside Rome, on February 14, 273 CE. Or that when combined with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre on February 14, 1929, the only heart truly associated with the day has been one punctured by a sword or a bullet, a blood-soaked one. Plus, it’s not as if I need capitalism to tell me whom to show my romantic side, with cards and flowers and chocolate, no less. Still, as a married man, I participate, although not with Western ideals of masculinity and romance in my head, if only to ensure my wife doesn’t feel left out.

But I must rewind about three decades, because while I don’t appreciate the fakery that comes with celebrating some candy-coated version of romance without actually celebrating St. Valentine, I did learn a thing or two about watching relationships bloom from afar. It was around this time thirty years ago that I noticed that Wendy and the contrarian one were dating, whatever that term means in the context of high school. Both would tell me that their relationship only began in high school, but my own recollections dispute that somewhat, if only because they shared roughly the same level of dislike for me during seventh grade!

Bloody woodchipper scene from Fargo (1996), February 14, 2015. (

Bloody woodchipper scene from Fargo (1996), February 14, 2015. (

The main point is, while for most of my classmates, it would’ve only been obvious in our junior year that Crush #1 and JD were together, I sensed it by the middle of tenth grade. If I’d been the exact same person I’d been during seventh and eighth grade, one head-over-heels in love with Wendy, I would’ve put my heart in a woodchipper, shot it all over a field, gathered it up again, and then put it into a mortar shell to explode into the sky to rain down all over Mount Vernon.

But I wasn’t that person in 7S, and hadn’t been for quite a while. My focus for most of tenth grade had been on living a sin-free Christian life, a transactional relationship with God that consisted of making good things happen for myself by prayer, fasting, and reading my Bible everywhere I went. Between that and my routine of watching younger siblings, washing clothes, tracking down my father Jimme, surviving another year of Humanities, running to the store two or three times every day, and so many other tasks, romance and dating might as well have been in an alternate universe. Even if I did feel envious, it would’ve been over not having money or a car or good food in my belly. Pining over Wendy — or any other girl or woman, for that matter — didn’t fit with any coping strategy that I had to get out of Mount Vernon as soon as my high school diploma and a college acceptance would allow me. At least prior to Crush #2.

What was more interesting to me, and what I knew was more interesting to my classmates, was the fact that Wendy and the contrarian one were dating, and in fact, an interracial couple, one a Black female (or, as some classmates still believed, biracial), the other a White male. I was interested only as an observer of people, because by tenth grade I’d actually grown to like JD and could be around Crush #1 without being conscious of the fact that she used to be my crush. I was interested in that the reactions of the folks at MVHS varied from my own “no surprise here” to dagger-eyed intolerance or head-shaking shame expressed by students across all cliques and most racial lines.

Black and White shortbread (or what President Barack Obama coined a "Unity Cookie" in 2008), July 23, 2007. (Punkitra via Released to public domain.

Black and White shortbread (or what President Barack Obama coined a “Unity Cookie” in 2008), July 23, 2007. (Punkitra via Released to public domain.

I’ve certainly known and know plenty of other people involved in interracial relationships and marriages since the spring of ’85. Some where only racial politics and stereotypes mattered, some where love and social justice mattered much more. In the case of my class’ Juliet and Romeo, maybe my crush took advantage of some of the racial politics involved with dating someone White, while my contrarian friend obviously doesn’t prefer blondes, and hasn’t in the years since. From my observer’s perch, though, there was much more to their relationship than racial preferences.

It was the first time I’d seen or heard about any interracial coupling beyond movies like West Side Story (I still love Rita Moreno, even at eighty-three) or in others telling me about them third-hand, after it was already over. To me, it was always a good fit and fitting, despite the racial politics playing out at school, not to mention the identity issues that had to be playing out between Wendy and JD, even unconsciously. What I gleaned from two and a half years of the two of them dating, though, was that they had found a world unto themselves, one which must’ve made MVHS a much easier hellhole to navigate, if nothing else.

My Washington Mission

February 6, 2015

Martin L

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, DC Public Library’s main branch, Washington, DC, November 2013 (never looked this nice in 1995). (

Twenty years ago this week I began the official phase of my doctoral thesis research. But it was much more than reading monographs and finding old papers at the Library of Congress and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. It was also a long trip, where I would spend the next two months living in Washington, DC, to do my research on multiculturalism and multicultural education, and to find evidence of both in Black Washington, DC and in the segregated DC Public Schools. It was also the first time I’d lived away from Pittsburgh or the New York City area, meaning that I had a new city to get to know.

The trip truly involved my past, present and future, all at once. I spent my first five days visiting with my friend Laurell and her family in Arlington while looking for some temporary housing of my own. I’d eventually run into two Pitt friends and two Carnegie Mellon friends while in DC, and develop at least one new friendship between February 2 and March 24. I talked with my favorite teach in Harold Meltzer during that trip, learning more than I ever wanted to know about some of my classmates and Mount Vernon High School in the process.

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

Mostly though, I split my Washington mission into three phases. Phase one was to find a cheap place to stay. After a day of dealing with Howard University professors-turned-slum-lords in LeDroit Park, I went through the Washington Post to find a series of rented rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Finally, I found a place in Shepherd Park, two blocks south of the DC-Silver Spring, Maryland border. It was a three-story house in a decent neighborhood on 12th Street, NW, with Blair Park, the Silver Spring Metro, and a corner KFC within walking distance. The landlord seemed decent enough, and my basement room came to $95/week with a $100 deposit. Those were the days, before gentrification and the housing boom sent the cost of shelter through the roof!

Phase two of my trip began Wednesday, February 8. I organized my schedule based on going to a number of archives and collecting materials first. I started with the Moorland-Spingarn Collection, which had been picked pretty clean by Henry Louis Gates (via buying collections) and by other, less reputable researchers (many who stole materials). I got to meet and talk with the archivist Esme Bhan about my research, which was wonderful. Still, I wondered how much longer Moorland-Spingarn could stay a reputable venue for scholarly research, with its lack of funding and lack of security from vultures emptying records.

The following week I split between the Columbiana Division at DC Public Library’s main branch, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library between Chinatown and downtown, and the DC Public School Archives on 17th and M. The DCPL portion of my work was an experiment in filtering out the smells and the sights of the homeless and mentally disabled. Not to mention the ability to not use the bathrooms in the building for eight hours at a time. The men’s stalls didn’t have doors, by the way. I spent only three days there, and rushed through gathering background on interviews of Black Washingtonians that the library had conducted back in the early 1980s. It didn’t help I had to deal with a peeping Tom at the old Hecht’s department store, where the bathrooms were much nicer.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

I found a gold mine of materials on formal and unofficial education policies regarding DC Public Schools during the Jim Crow period — especially between 1920 and 1950 — at the DCPS archives. But because they didn’t have a working copier, the archivist there allowed me to take original records going back seven decades to the Sir Speedy on M Street to make my own copies. This was in contrast to my three days Presidents’ Day week at the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, where security was tighter in ’95 than at most airports in 2015.

The Library of Congress part of my data gathering was intriguing. If only because their rubber chicken lunches were expensive ($7), and because I found more material on W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell there than I did at Moorland-Spingarn. Finally, I ended phase two with the Columbia Historical Society in Dupont Circle and a two-day expedition of finding nothing at the National Archives in DC and in Greenbelt, Maryland.

I spent most of March figuring out what to do with two big boxes’ worth of new materials and writing what would be parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of my dissertation. In between, I did find time to hang out. With my new friend Marya, who was from DC, but was working on her history doctorate from the University of Michigan. In addition to being plied with vegan options for my delicate gastrointestinal tract and talking about our research, we did joke a bit about the idea of my Joe Trotter and her Earl Lewis actually being friends in any real sense of the word. There was also time to go out to dinner with Laurell, take in a couple of bad movies with my Carnegie Mellon friend Tracie (like Losing Isaiah), and even have a quick lunch with Trotter during his own quick visit to DC.

Terrell Owens hauls in 'The Catch II' from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

Terrell Owens hauls in ‘The Catch II’ from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

After seven weeks of living in DC, I took the train up to New York to go visit my family in Mount Vernon for a few days. What was great about those two months was how peaceful everything was. I was three weeks away from becoming a Spencer Fellow and somehow earning the ire of my doctoral advisor. My family was a month away from becoming homeless for the next two and a half years. My borrowing to cover the costs of this first major research trip, I’m probably still paying interest on today. But without this trip, I wouldn’t have begun the process of questioning the direction of my career and life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to finish my doctorate. Being single-minded about a mission isn’t bad or good. It just means ignoring small stuff, some of which can occasionally turn into a festering cesspool.

Technocrats, Journalists, and Statistical Orgies

January 25, 2015

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (

Front page of The Washington Post, January 25, 2015. (

There are times when I wonder if exposing racial and socioeconomic disparities is really an eye-opening and life-changing exercise. Or, does the exposure merely serve to confirm the racial and socioeconomic stereotypes that Americans hold against each other? In today’s Washington Post, on the front page and above the fold, there’s an article titled “A Shattered Foundation,” with the smaller type “African Americans who bought homes in Prince George’s [County] have watched their wealth vanish.”

Above the title and subtitle are a series of charts and statistics noting the national chasm of a gap in total wealth accumulation between Black families ($95,300) and White families ($678,800). The theme here is that since the housing bust and subsequent Great Recession, the burgeoning Black middle class of PG County has fallen on desperate times, as home equity — their main means for accumulating wealth — for tens of thousands of these families caved in on them.

Michael A. Fletcher’s article is pretty even-handed. But this is kind of tangential to my larger point. In any given three-month period of my life, for nearly as long as the forty years and two months I’ve known how to read in full sentences, I could’ve scanned at least one article or book about the cruelties of structural racism and capitalism. Even if I’d never grown up in poverty or experienced racial discrimination, there have been enough articles, op-eds, books, book chapters, poems, short stories, plays, letters to the editor and scripts written about disparities to cover the US a mile deep in paper. The fact is, no statistics on growing wealth gaps and persistent racial gaps in wealth and education have led to lasting changes in policies, politics or institutional structures substantial enough to end poverty or ameliorate the most vicious forms of racism in this country.

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (

Hand reaches out from big heap of crumpled papers, January 25, 2015. (

Then again, there are some folks whose business depends on mantras like the “growing wealth gap” or “closing the achievement gap…as the civil rights issue of our time.” Technocrats in corporate education reform, social scientists in the world of conservative and “libertarian” think-tanks, neoliberals and so-called American liberals in search of compromises to strengthen the American middle class. They all turn to these statistics to tell their stories, to sell their experiments and their research, to promote their politics. It’s as if the statistics on racial and socioeconomic gaps in wealth and education provided a high, like crystal meth or a speedball. In some ways, for these groups, a five-story brothel in which they practiced S&M would be more appropriate for their use of misery statistics.

I am hardly suggesting The Washington Post‘s Fletcher or I or any other journalist, academician or writer should cease making their points with statistics about racial and socioeconomic disparities. But America’s poor and poor people of color or falling-through-the-cracks middle class are far more than “statistics on a government chart” (to quote The Police’s “Invisible Sun“). These are real people with families and lives, people who represent generations of lives in which this construct of racial capitalism has limited their choices and their opportunities, whether they believe in fate or not. So-called objectivity has never been sufficient, and neither have been statistics. What we need is a revolution in thought and in action, quiet or otherwise.


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